Letting students know what we expect in essays

At a recent student-staff committee meeting, a first year student rep noted that it was difficult to know what sort of things markers would be looking for in an essay (especially since many people had no cause to write essays at all during their A level science courses).

I was able to point him to the generic guidance we offer in the Undergraduate Handbook, issues to all new students. However, I also wondered whether we ought really to give more information (particularly when we likely give *markers* of the work quite a thorough checklist). So this year I’ve decided to send an email overtly pointing out the kind of things that gain or lose marks (see below). Critics might argue either that (a) this is undue spoon-feeding or (b) that it will make it harder for us to find criteria on which to comment. I would counter this by saying that ironing out of some of these issue should make it clearer for us to actually get into the *content* of the essay we are assessing and not end up so focused on the *production and process* that we barely get into discussion of the substance of the essay proper.

Anyhow, we’ll see how it goes.

Criteria markers may be judging:

  • Has the essay got the correct title (not some vague approximation to it)?
  • Does the essay have a proper introduction and conclusion?
  • Are references cited in the text (using the Harvard system)? Is there a well-organised reference list at the end?
  • Does the essay answer the question posed in the title?
  • Is there a logical flow to what has been written (or is a random collection of points, albeit valid points)?
  • Is the sentence construction good? Are there issues with paragraphing? Is the story “well told”?
  • Has selective or partial coverage of the topic, inevitable in short essays, been justified in any way?
  • Have other instructions been followed e.g. is the essay double-spaced? page numbers? word limit?
  • Are there diagrams? Do they have: Figure number? Title? Legend (if applicable)? Are they referred to in the text? Are they neat and fit for purpose? If “imported” from a source are they cited?
  • Is the title and/or legend “widowed” (on a different page) from the image?
  • Is there inappropriate use of quotes?
  • Is the essay clearly too long (or too short)?

Ice-breakers: tried and tested

It’s that time of year when new cohorts of students are getting to know you and getting to know each other. Here’s suggestions for a couple of ice-breaker activities:

1. Four “facts” about me: this is one I’ve used a lot over the years. Everyone (including yourself) is asked to introduce themselves and say four facts about themselves. However, one of the facts needs to be false, and everyone needs to guess which was the bogus information. Works best when you give the students a bit of time to think about it and tell them to make the lie plausible.

2. Human bingo: inspired by Julian Park’s session at a recent pedagogic forum, this year I tried something different. I created a 6×6 “bingo” grid of statements and the students had to try and complete as many lines on the board as possible in a set time by trying to find peers that fitted the given description. I included a few more rules:

(i) they could only have given person once on their board (although another tutor with a smaller group expanded this to allow two references to each person, which worked well)
(ii) they could include themselves (but only once)
(iii) to ensure conversation they needed to start by asking up to 3 questions “did you go to an olympic or paralympic event?”, “do you have a tattoo?”, etc but if they got three “no”s they could then ask the person to pick a category that was true about them. Depending if they were kind or devious they might pick an answer that completed a line or was no help whatsoever.

After the allocated time, the winner was the person who had the most completed lines of six (rows, columns or major diagonals). A small prize could be offered, but if it is make sure it can be shared for circumstances when there are more than one winner.

My bingo card is available here (as an editable word document), and is shown below. In a group of 35 students we failed to find anyone willing to admit to being vegetarian or knitting, but we did have someone who had been arrested (“though it was all a big mistake”).

Obituary: the death of a dear friend?

The HE Academy have announced the phasing out of the Subject Centres

We are all aware that the UK is in a financial mess and savings need to be made. The nearer the guillotine falls to your areas of interest the more intensely you are going to feel the pain. The tragedy comes when cuts kill off services of genuine merit and value. The recent announcement that a spending review by the Higher Education Academy will result in the closure of the Subject Centre network is a huge body-blow.

Although the closure had been anticipated, the loss of the UK Centre for Bioscience is likely to have a significant negative impact on the student experience. It was been my privilege to become involved in the work of the Centre from its earliest days, and I want to put on public record some of the benefits that have I have drawn from their work. Continue reading